Illustration by BT Livermore

IT'S NO SECRET that Mayor Sam Adams is upset about the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project. Since September 2009, Adams has been a vocal critic of the plan to replace the six-lane I-5 bridge to Vancouver with a 10- or 12-lane $3.6 billion bridge. Adams, among other critics, wants a smaller, "smarter" bridge that will lead to less traffic and car travel—not more.

But Adams' office claims they were stonewalled by CRC staff, who are rolling forward with the big bridge plan at the direction of Oregon and Washington's governors. So with city money, Adams sidestepped the CRC staff over the past three months, hiring his own freeway experts to look into the effect of slicing lanes from the bridge.

The three-month study cost the city $100,000. But Adams' office says the study is worth the cost because the independent analysis was able to answer questions critics have been asking for years.

The consultants' big finding: A 10-lane bridge will meet the region's needs almost just as well as a 12-lane bridge, but cost $50 million less.

The number of lanes on the CRC has been a central controversy surrounding the bridge. The joint Oregon and Washington project has so far spent $40.3 million in public funds on consultants and PR staff ["Riding the Gravy Train," News, March 11] to design and pitch the current plan to replace the six-lane span with a 12-lane bridge initially striped for 10 lanes. Environmental advocates want the states to build the smallest bridge possible, pushing for either six lanes or eight lanes.

"We kept asking questions about the size of the bridge and just kept getting the answer back, 'No, that won't work,'" says Mayor Adams' transportation policy director, Catherine Ciarlo. "Now we can wrestle with what the answers actually look like."

CRC spokeswoman Carley Francis welcomed the study, saying she was surprised Adams felt stonewalled and that the CRC welcomes reviews of its work.

A representative of consultant group URS presented the city study at a meeting of the bigwig Project Sponsors Council (of which Mayor Adams is a member) on Friday, June 25.

The only difference between a 10-lane bridge and 12-lane bridge, the study showed, was $50 million in savings and an additional half hour of traffic congestion.

But building an eight-lane span would be a different story, requiring a significant reduction in the number of daily car commuters. Only three percent of current bridge crossers use transit or carpool, and to reach the CRC's traffic goals with an eight-lane bridge, the study revealed, 37 percent of commuters would have to use transit, carpool, or telecommute. Increasing rush-hour tolls on the bridge from $2 to $3 could cut 15 percent of that traffic.

The response from the local leaders on the Project Sponsors Council was mostly skeptical.

"Charging more for less isn't creating better cost benefit for the people who are paying it," summed up Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart.

The mayor kept quiet during the presentation of the eight-lane option, but leapt on Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond when she described tolling and transit incentives as "artificial constraints" on commuters.

"I'm trying to move my city further in the direction of sustainability and it's not helpful to have you explain to people across the river that tools other than building freeway lanes is artificially constraining," said Adams.

Hammond hit back that expecting 37 percent of the 134,000 vehicles crossing the bridge daily to switch to transit or carpooling is unrealistic. "I can't see that future because I don't see one existing today," said Hammond.

Another Project Sponsors Council member, David Bragdon, who has also been critical of the bridge plan, said the eight-lane plan seemed "really ambitious." But the study itself, he said, was a breath of fresh air.

"We're finally getting some answers, after three years of asking."